Hardy's Wessex


King AlfredOriginally, Wessex was the name given to a Saxon kingdom during the eighth to eleventh centuries, with its capital at Winchester. King Alfred was probably its most famous king. It covered South-west England, including the present counties of Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Berkshire.

The term then dropped out of use as England became a unified kingdom and then the United Kingdom. It was largely Thomas Hardy who popularised the term again. The idea of calling the whole area Wessex only gradually emerged over the earlier novels, but then the title Wessex Novels was applied to his first collected edition, and the term began to be used more widely. 

The map

Hardy's novels were some of the first to carry a map of the area being described. The map only developed quite late on in his writing, with the Wessex Novels edition. Nowadays, we are quite used to the idea, with the maps of Narnia in C.S.Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Middle Earth in J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. These later maps are entirely fictitious: Hardy's map was not. It was of a real area of England, only the names were nearly all different.

This reminds readers that any area described in a novel is always imagined or invented through the mind of the writer, however much it appears to represent a topographical reality. Casterbridge is not actually Dorchester, but a construct of Hardy's mind, formed out of his memory and observation, which has to be re-imagined in our minds as we read.

A provincial novelist?

Hardy's map of WessexSometimes, a novel set in a certain part of the country, is termed a ‘provincial' or ‘regional' novel. Although Hardy's first popularity came as a rural novelist, he attacked the notion of ‘Hodge', the stereotypical yokel and figure of fun. To him, country people had as much humanity and individuality as anyone else, and he set out to show this.

In fact, Hardy shows that he is very aware of ‘modernity' in Tess, using the rural and the traditional to challenge many so-called modern ideas. The tension that Hardy achieves in the novel is partly constructed out of the unease that he feels between the traditional and the modern. In this way, he uses Tess's ‘provinciality' to criticise such modern characters as Alec and Angel.

The geography of Tess

Hardy selected a different time, aspect and part of Wessex to write about in each of his novels, as Dickens did of London. The Wessex of Tess is part of modern Dorset (he called it South Wessex), running from its far north, in Blackmoor Vale, to the Valley of the Froom or Frome, which runs east to west across its southern part. Both these places are given their real names.

If you look at a map of Dorset, you will find Blackmoor Vale on the border with Somerset; and the Frome valley running between Wareham and Dorchester. However, most other names are fictitious. Their ‘real' equivalents are given in the Text section, when they are first mentioned. The important things to note here are that:

  • The geography takes on a symbolic value
  • The two valleys are frequently contrasted
  • Between the two valleys lies a high range of hills and an infertile plateau.

Tess has to walk long distances as public transport is infrequent and disorganised. Descriptions are often from different perspectives: bird's eye and worm's eye.

Roads and railways

Stage coachThe time setting of many nineteenth century novels can be worked out by how extensive the rail network is. In Dickens' Great Expectations, Pip travels to London by stage coach, so the setting must be before 1830. In many of Hardy's novels, the same pre-railway age is also featured, as in The Trumpet Major. However, in Tess there is a railway line, running along the Frome Valley. As we see in The Mayor of Casterbridge, it terminates at Casterbridge. We know that in history such a line was constructed in 1847.

However, there are no other railways featured in the novel. Even to-day, Dorset is not well served by railways. But there are no stage coaches in Tess, either. It is only private horse and carriage, or carts driven by very local carriers that provide any transport. So people travel rarely or slowly if they do not own a horse. This suggests that the novel is set at a time around the middle of the century, perhaps the period of Hardy's own youth.


  • What is the significance of horses in Tess?
    • What power do the people who own them have?
  • Are Tess's journeys on foot happy?
  • When Tess uses a horse to travel, how often does she achieve her destination?
  • Two places lie outside South Wessex in the story: Sandbourne and Stonehenge
    • What do they represent?

A note about dialect

The language of the main characters in the Victorian novel was usually educated. For example, Dickens' Oliver Twist and Pip, from Great Expectations, speak in educated English or received pronunciation. Hardy knew that in real life his protagonists would not, though the village schools all made some efforts at getting rid of what they saw as uneducated dialect forms and accent.

Hardy himself would have spoken the dialect of south-west England whilst a boy. One of his older contemporaries, the poet William Barnes, wrote a number of poems in this dialect, and thereby gained some popularity. His well-known poem Linden Lea is a good example.

As Hardy became more educated, he dropped his dialect form of speech. Jude in Jude the Obscure does too. Tess is allocated mainly received pronunciation, but with some dialect forms. To make this realistic, he stresses her intelligence and that there were plans for her to become a teacher, when she would most certainly have had to speak standard English. The other farm workers, as minor characters, all speak dialect, which was perfectly allowable in literary convention.

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